Greeson: Promised production needed now

Greeson: Promised production needed now

March 10th, 2010 by Jay Greeson in Opinion Columns

With each powerful swing of his bat, Jason Heyward's lofty potential grows. Each tape-measure home run stretches the seemingly limitless range of his power.

It also expands the expectations on the 20-year-old Atlanta Braves prospect. And the pressure.

Heyward, the chiseled outfield phenom who has been mentioned alongside names such as Mays, Aaron and Mantle this spring, is hardly alone in the youth movement in the Nationa League East. Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg made his spring-training debut Tuesday, also delivering an impressive taste of his immense talents.

Each has overpowering skills -- Heyward's prodigious home runs that make each at-bat must-see baseball and Strasburg manhandling the Tigers on Tuesday with a fastball that was routinely clocked around 98 mph. Each carries a large part of the future of their respective franchises.

But of the two, Heyward is being counted on almost from the start, and unlike Strasburg he is an everyday player who will be expected to produce every day.

And with all that promise of stardom comes the real chance of disaster -- something with which the Atlanta franchise has become acutely familiar.

During their dominant run of 14 consecutive division titles, the Braves routinely developed hitters who, well, hit. David Justice beget Ron Gant, who beget Ryan Klesko, who beget Chipper Joners, who beget Andruw Jones, who -- you get the idea.

Highlighted most recently by Jordan Schafer's flop last year, the Braves have failed for the better part of the last decade to produce a true young offensive force, with the exception of Brian McCann.

The much-ballyhooed Baby Braves -- a collection of more than a dozen rookies who contributed to the 2005 division title -- were pegged to bridge the generations of success but have become a forgettable footnote. Other than McCann, the major offensive names of that group -- Ryan Langerhans, Wilson Betemit, Jeff Francoeur, Kelly Johnson and Andy Marte -- are gone.

The next wave of young offensive stars -- Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Elvis Andrus -- was jettisoned to Texas for Mark Teixeira in an attempt to get back to the playoffs in 2007. This is not to debate the merits of dealing prospects for possible runs at the postseason.

The Braves' unfortunate run of producing star-caliber offensive talent exponentially increases the importance of Heyward's success. Chipper Jones is within a ground-rule double of the end of his great career. McCann is among the game's best-hitting catchers, but truthfully he is much better suited to be a good No. 5 hitter than someone counted upon to drive in 110-plus runs from the No. 3 or 4 spot.

There is little debate that Heyward is the future, but can he be the present? Will he be the franchise centerpeice like Ryan Howard has become in Philadelphia? Or will he be a flash in the pan weighted with expectations that proved to be too heavy, as was the case with Francoeur?

There is no doubt Heyward has the power. The stories circulating from Florida have taken on a life of their own. He has the uber-hip nickname -- T-shirts are circulating around spring training with "J-Hey" on the front, paying old-school tribute to Willie Mays' "Say Hey" tag and the modern trend of first letter-first syllable that have made A-Rod and J-Lo and T-Mac famous.

Braves coaches rave about Heyward's speed and defensive ability, completing the full circle of praise for each of his five tools.

The early returns have bordered on raves, and manager Bobby Cox and Co. have wisely eschewed the traditional coach-speak and not downplayed his talents. The kid is special, and his presence is undeniable.

Whether Heyward is ready or not, he needs to be in Atlanta and do what he does best -- take his swings and let the balls fall where they may.